Different company, same end result?

That pretty much sums up the fears of some Merrimack Valley residents who testified in front of the Department of Public Utilities during a Zoom public hearing Tuesday night to get input on the proposed buyout of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts by Eversource Energy.

“It feels like more of the same thing with a different name,” said Lawrence resident Justin Termini, who lived through the Sept. 13, 2018 gas explosions, fires and evacuations that left one dead and dozens injured. “I don’t feel safe. I’m disappointed in the whole idea. We want to feel safe and not get hurt again.”

The deal, prompted by the 2018 calamity, was crafted by the Massachusetts Attorney General with the cooperation of NiSource — the parent company of Columbia Gas — and Eversource, which currently has gas customers throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut. 

This deal will double the number of its customers, as Eversource will take over all Columbia Gas customers in three regions of the state -- Brockton, Springfield and Lawrence -- if the deal is approved by the DPU.

The public hearing will continue Thursday morning at 10 a.m.

“I wish members of the communities affected so badly have a say in how this was going to go down from the get-go,” Termini added. “What are other options rather than just going with another giant gas company?”

The 2018 accident, caused by over-pressurization of the gas system in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, led to explosions, fires, building collapses one death and scores of injuries. Thousands were evacuated, businesses were shut down for months and even when residents were allowed to return to their homes, many lived without heat or hot water into the winter. 

Now, residents want guarantees they won’t have to deal with that again. 

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, the only elected official to speak, urged the DPU to approve the deal, saying it would “bring justice to our communities. Columbia Gas, with your vote, will no longer exist.”

But, he added, “This is a cautionary tale for Eversource regarding your responsiveness, responsibility and humanity. Your product is not your gas, or gas lines. Your product is enabling the human condition. Never forget the people who pay those monthly bills.”

In addition to being mayor, Rivera’s own Lawrence home was also impacted by the accident and the lengthly recovery. 

Rebecca Tepper of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office said the deal requires NiSource to pay $56 million into an energy relief fund to wipe out the gas bill debt for 26,000 low-income customers in the Brockton, Lawrence and Springfield markets formerly served by Columbia Gas.

The deal also provides funding for the Merrimack Valley Renewal Fund to finance programs, grants and local partnerships as well as clean energy commitments enabling the state to reach zero-net carbon goals. 

Commissioner Patrick Woodcock of the state Department of Energy Resources said the deal will provide “meaningful benefits to all Columbia Gas customers and ... steps to improve safety of this distribution system.”

Not everyone listening in was convinced of the safety of the system, even with Eversource at the helm.

Lawrence resident Kimberly Boutin said she and her grandfather were displaced from their homes and that her grandfather died in November 2018 after moving back.

“I believe it was because of the gas fires and the displacement,” she said. “This is personal to me.”

She said that every time she sees a new gas line going in the street she feels “retraumatized. I don’t want to just give more money to another gas company that will keep our reliance on natural gas. There need to be other options.”

Fernanda Lopez, also of Lawrence, agreed, asking why other options weren’t being explored.

Further, she added, very few residents were given adequate notice of Tuesday night’s public hearing.

“We think it will still be dangerous,” she said, adding that “pipes can still blow up our city, putting us at risk of illness and death. Who does this benefit? It doesn’t benefit us if we still live under possible death by gas explosion.”

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